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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Next-Generation Medium-Format Cameras And Backs

The reports of the death of medium format in a digital age seem to have been greatly exaggerated

Evolution Of An Idea

At the annual PMA photo industry trade show a few years ago, a company called SiliconFilm announced its intention to produce eFilm, a digital sensor insert for 35mm film cameras. To some, it seemed like an amazing idea destined for greatness—the ideal way to bridge the gap between old and new technologies. Needless to say, the product never took off and very quickly the technology became both unnecessary and obsolete. SiliconFilm no longer exists.

Why didn't this hybrid approach work? For one, the rapid advance in digital technology among 35mm-format digital SLRs, combined with their equally rapid decline in price, left what would have been a useful product five years earlier in the dust of the rapidly advancing digital revolution. Photographers simply got their hands on an affordable, high-resolution, integrated Nikon or Canon digital body and suddenly everything about digital seemed doable.

Meanwhile, in the world of medium-format photography, things were evolving quite differently. Only in the last several months were all-digital systems even announced; the industry was not only content, but eager to adapt medium-format film cameras to digital shooting. Why the difference in platform philosophies? Partly because most professional medium-format equipment always has been more of an investment than the typical 35mm system, photographers have been reluctant to part with the Hasselblad system that has endured for decades or the Mamiya kit they have constructed over the course of a career.

Commercial photographer Jody Dole claims to “own every Hasselblad and Mamiya camera and lens known to mankind.” His sudden departure from medium-format gear would not only be unappetizing, but downright bad for business.

Camera quality always has drawn pros to medium format, but its biggest appeal is image quality. The larger negative or transparency provides more information than any 35mm film could ever hope for. Often the perfect compromise between the portability and modularity of a 35mm system and the large film, but bulky assemblage of a view camera, medium format appeals to the working professional's varied needs. For most pros to incorporate digital capture into their medium-format workflow, the technology has to compete with an already exceptional system, an existing infrastructure and an affordable method of getting a great big image.

Add to that an intangible and personal aspect of medium-format film choice—namely the ability to shoot squares, rectangles, panoramas—and it's easy to understand why many professional photographers are unusually attached to their chosen equipment and why they resist letting it gather dust on a shelf.

“The thing I don't like about using 35mm is the image format,” says New York celebrity photographer Frank Veronsky. “I find it too extreme in the vertical and horizontal lengths. The 6x7 format is much more ideal for most magazine pages and print sizes. I know that you can crop the 35mm image format to those same specs, but who wants to do that? You're already creating extra work for yourself in addition to making the image size immediately smaller.”

Manufacturers recognized this attachment to medium format early on—either through foresight or financial and technical limitations—and they built the digital equivalent of a modular film back to attach to the camera. Suddenly, photographers could convert a 20-year-old film camera into a high-tech digital tool.


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